24 October, 2017

One of those nights

Moth trapping has been desperately poor in the garden this autumn. A bright LED streetlight illuminates the garden for half the night which is something I can cope with during high summer when there's enough moths to go around, but I'm sure it has an effect of drawing moths away in the quieter months. Last week I was about ready to pack away the trap for the year after yet another catch of just Lesser Yellow Underwing and Tachystola acroxantha, but the appearance of the garden's second Merveille du Jour managed to persuade me otherwise.

I'm very glad it did because this morning, following a night of perfect weather conditions, I woke to a trap full of moths. Underneath the egg boxes were Red-green Carpet, Feathered Thorn, Black Rustic and Red-line Quaker; classic autumnal moths that don't show up in the garden half as often as I'd like them to. It was exciting. Felt like I could stumble across something unusual at any moment.

Perched on top one of the egg boxes was a tiny but quite strongly marked moth with two distinctively huge white strigulae (a fancy word for stripes) along its dorsum (another fancy word for the moth's back). I recognised it instantly, but only because I'd recently been drooling over pictures of the one that Bob Arnfield caught in his Putney garden last year. It's Cydia interscindana, a tortrix that feeds on the Mediterranean plant Juniperus oxycedrus. Bob's one from last year was the 1st UK record, and I believe he's caught another this autumn too. The species' natural distribution covers much of the Mediterranean, but like many insects it has almost certainly been given a helping hand northwards with the cultivation of its foodplant.

As far as I know we're the only two people who have caught one at the moment, but it seems likely that there's a low key population flying around the London suburbs.

Also new for the garden but slightly overshadowed was this Vestal, one of two caught last night.

27 September, 2017

Grey Phalarope

Things have been a little slow burning since my summer contract with the Lulworth rangers came to an end two weeks ago and I moved out of the caravan at Durdle Door that's been home for the past four months. Saying goodbye to a great bunch of people (and a great part of the world) is always a kick in the teeth, and the challenge now will be to find the next gig - preferably as good as the one I've just left!

On Saturday I was back down on the south coast, dropping my brother off in Southampton for his second year at university.  After fulfilling said brotherly duties I twitched the juvenile Grey Phalarope that had made landfall in a small ditch near the picturesque village of Keyhaven. It went about its business in the typical manner you'd expect from a displaced young Phalarope, frantically bobbing around and feeding on aquatic invertebrates without batting an eyelid at the families, dog walkers, cyclists and birders out enjoying a beautiful evening alongside the saltmarsh.

30 August, 2017

I got lost

A few weekends ago I nipped over to Aberystwyth to catch up with some old school friends. I got horribly lost on my home and ended up first at the Dyfi Osprey Project...

Then on the Minffordd Path heading up into the spectacular Cadair Idris mountain range. Nightmare!

Llyn Cau

Twin-spot Carpet 

Fox Moth

Parsley Fern

16 August, 2017

A night on the moors

Lulworth Cove is a popular tourist hotspot all year round but during the August summer holidays it becomes a whole new level of manic. The car park, over flow car park and back up overflow car park are filled by midday at the moment and the coast path to Durdle Door attains the kind of people traffic you'd expect along the Southbank in the run up to Christmas.

Walk anywhere off the beaten track (or up a steep hill) and you pretty quickly shrug off the majority of tourists, but the other weekend I opted for a complete change of scenery and took my tent down to Dartmoor for the night. I've been waiting for a chance to return ever since visiting for the first time back in June. The landscapes are entrancing and it's only an hour or so's drive from my base camp at Lulworth.

I parked up at Two Bridges, a secluded hamlet deep in the wilds of the Moor, and waved goodbye to the car. With tent, sleeping bag, tomato soup, tea bags, a stove and a pair of binoculars all crammed into my rucksack I set off off down a track and then onto a well-trodden path towards Wistman's Wood.

The sun was wavering just above Beardown Tor to the west as I reached the wood, gradually dipping below the hillside. I watched the shade line slowly creep up through the woods towards me and the dappled rays of sunlight on the moss-cladded oaks and boulders. I'd heard good things about Wistman's Wood, but this was magical beyond words. As much as I wanted to be able to say I'd kipped in such a bewitching spot, I've also heard creepy stories of pagan rituals and ghosts that encouraged the superstitious side of me to resist pitching the tent quite yet!

From the top end of Wistman's Wood I headed north-west up onto the moors. There was a Grasshopper Warbler singing somewhere amongst the tussocks of sedges and rushes, and a herd of testosterone-filled Dartmoor ponies were busy chasing each other around the hillside.

I set up the tent on a rocky outcrop which turned out to be Lydford Tor, so called because the ancient track that runs alongside it was used by 13th century residents of local farmsteads as a route by which to carry their dead across the moor for burial at Lydford church. Luckily I had no such processions pass by me during the night as far as I'm aware and I woke up at 5am to a positively freezing, misty and completely silent moorland landscape.

Amazingly there was an owl hunting in the distant gloom. It was too dark to make out any detail, but the size and flight pattern perfectly matched an Asio species. Short-eared Owls are strictly winter visitors in the south-west so one hunting over Dartmoor in the middle of summer would be unheard of. Long-eared Owl on the other hand does breed on the Moor in very small numbers, although it is strictly nocturnal and rarely seen.

Without decent views or a photo, the owl sighting will have to remain a mystery. An apt way to end an eerie, magical and atmospheric night on Dartmoor.

13 July, 2017

Cliff top light show

Head up to Durdle Door after dark and you not only lose the crowds of tourists, but you also have a chance of witnessing a magical light show. At this time of year, female glow worms light up like mini beacons along the cliff tops, shining to attract the gaze of males. They had to work extra hard last weekend to compete against the full moon.

08 July, 2017

Ivy Broomrape

Last Sunday I walked what is fast becoming my favourite part of the south coast, the ten mile stretch between Kimmeridge and Swanage. It has everything you could want from a coastline - dizzyingly high cliffs, secluded beaches, breathtaking sea vistas, fossils, seabird colonies, rare plants and Purbeck ice cream.

One of the weirdest things to be found along this stretch of the coast is Ivy Broomrape, a parasitic plant that gains all its nutrients from the root stock of its host Ivy since it has no chlorophyll with which to absorb its own sunlight. I stumbled across this flower by chance in a dingy overgrown corner of Winspit Quarry after I took a wrong turn along the SW coast path and ended up at the entrance to an old mine!

 Ivy Broomrape

Winspit Quarry

01 July, 2017

Black-a-tor Copse

A while back I booked the dates between 22nd and 26th June off work with a rough plan to head up into a remote part of north-west Scotland called the Fisherfield Forest. I'd drawn up a hiking route through the mountains, scouted out a few potential wild camping spots and charged up the batteries ready to run a moth trap in a place where no moth trap has been run before.

Last weekend began to approach and, inevitably, the weather forecast became progressively worse. Sunny spells turned to heavy cloud which turned to light rain, and to top it off gale force winds were being predicted. Not ideal! In the end I decided it best to postpone my northward travels until a nicer weather window, and instead I used the time off to head south-west and set foot on Dartmoor for the time.

I left the car in the tiny hamlet of Meldon on the north-west side of Dartmoor and skirted around the outside of the reservoir, following the West Okement River upstream and onto higher ground.

Just as it seemed like I'd advanced above the tree-line, up ahead loomed the outline of Black-a-tor Copse, a small patch of woodland nestled high on the slopes of Black Tor. I got closer and it began to take shape. Gnarled and tangled old oaks were growing up through moss-clad boulders, and nothing was stirring. I looked around it wasn't hard to get lost in the romantic thought that I'd been transported back in time 10,000 years to an untouched post-glacial landscape, as yet free from the effects of human disturbance.

There are three of these unique other-worldly woods spread across Dartmoor's high ground, each abound with stories of pagan rituals, ghosts and myths, which means I've still got two more to find...

A bed amongst the boulders

20 June, 2017

World's sharpest moth

On Sunday evening I parked up at Whiteways Viewpoint and went for a long walk through the army ranges towards Mupe Bay. It was a super route that took in dreamy views towards Worbarrow Bay, remote empty beaches, steep clifftop strolls and rolling countryside vistas towards Poole Harbour. It also led me to stumble into the gorgeous Cynaeda dentalis, a rare moth of calcareous grassland and cliffs along the south coast that has an unusual arrangement of scales that actually make it look spiky and jagged. Perhaps, maybe, possibly a visual defence against predators, or am I just being silly?

 Cynaeda dentalis

 Pyramidal Orchid above Worbarrow Bay

 Bee Orchid growing on the Flower's Barrow, an Iron Age hill fort on the high ridge above Worbarrow Bay

 Field Mushrooms were growing in odd clumps along the cliff tops

15 June, 2017

Early Gentian counting

There was an air of excitement in the ranger's office this morning. It's been a busy week of early morning birds surveys, teaching and coasteering, but today Dom Price from the Species Recovery Trust was over at Durdle Door to survey Early Gentian, and we'd all left the date free in our diaries to head up there and help him count them.

In typical Lulworth fashion, no sooner had we pasted on the suncream than the sun disappeared and the sea fret drew in, but the thought of a day spent looking for a rare UK endemic plant on the slopes above a wondrous limestone arch was enough to extinguish any bad feelings about the weather (which got better again as the day went on!).

With the help of Dom's keen eye and a trusty handheld GPS, we found healthy populations of Early Gentian at several grid references where they've been seen before in similar surveys back in 2008 and 1998. These plants grow in only the very shortest turf where they don't have to compete with taller grasses, so to find them in the same spot over consecutive surveys is proof that the livestock grazing regime up there is working.

Quadrat sampling with a view 

 Red pegs were used to mark the locations of clumps of plants

Despite growing in very short turf, it's an inconspicuous plant

Interestingly, some of the largest clusters were growing immediately alongside the steps on the South West Coast Path where it leads down to the Cove, in an area that they haven't previously been recorded and that isn't often grazed. This busy route between Lulworth and Durdle Door is walked by thousands of tourists every summer, and the constant footfall has effectively done the same job as grazing cow - kept the grass short! Footpath erosion isn't usually something to rave about, but in this case it seems to be beneficial!

 Ideal Early Gentian habitat alongside one of the busiest footpaths on the south coast

A couple of dazzling Cistus Forester joined in the fun

Pyramidal Orchid